To partner or to patronise?

| October 14, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Dalene Reyburn

I may be opening up a can of worms by putting these thoughts out there. (Or maybe a can of non-perishable foodstuffs that could be donated to the needy. With a blanket thrown in, to ease my winter conscience.)

Many South African schools are proudly involved in what’s traditionally called ‘outreach’ – helping communities less fortunate than our own. The idea of reaching out to others is noble and steeped in a compassionate desire to help and build and warm and feed. But lately I’ve become aware of questions around the semantics of this concept. Sure, a rose by any other name, and all that. I mean, who cares what you call it? The point is that you’re doing something, right? And yet, words have nuance, and there is tremendous power and significance in those subtle shifts of meaning.

Finding a label that fits

We could call outreach community service, defined by Singleton as “volunteering in the community for some form of extrinsic reward”1 such as fulfilling the requirements of a Life Orientation curriculum portfolio (a requirement of the South African National Senior Certificate final school examination is that every student completes certain community-oriented or life preparedness assignments). Or we could call it social responsibility, which denotes societal obligation – a duty to be performed. Some might call it volunteering, but this seems an unsatisfactory tag to pin on such a profoundly important aspect of our relational humanity. It rests on the mood or whim of the volunteer – as in, “I think I might go along today and help out at the retirement centre, if it doesn’t rain.”

All of these labels smack of a kind of Kipling-esque condescension (his horrifically un-PC injunction to ‘Take up the White Man’s burden… To serve your captives’ need’).2 It’s the ‘haves’ benevolently handing out to the ‘have nots’, and feeling pretty self-satisfied about having done so. The very idea of labelling our altruistic activities is flawed. A neat sticky tag called ‘outreach’ or anything else suggests superficiality.

Measuring methods and motives

A further question: are the ‘haves’ learning anything? As schools, holistic, meaningful development should be the core motive for anything we undertake. If we are involved in community work, then we need to examine its educational value for our learners. Are we trying to teach social responsibility? Indeed, can it be taught? Should it matter what our students get out of it, or should our only concern be the benefits for those on the receiving end of our endeavours? Until very recently, the socioeconomic, political and educational realities in South Africa were such that community work could frequently be nothing more meaningful than patronising – if sincere – hand-outs to the poor.

Where’s the change? But South Africa is supposed to have changed. We’re supposed to be a democracy, though the reality is that we’re probably still one of the most unequal societies on the planet.

Here’s a theory. Maybe what we glibly refer to as ‘nation building’ needs to start happening from the bottom up – from kids in schools – since it’s not happening from the top down as fast as it should. That way, our children will be learning something profound about the power they possess to effect significant change, and their community connections will be mutually beneficial – like the level ground of a chat room, where each person can give and receive, teach and be taught. We can no longer afford to be patronising; we need to be partners.

Many independent schools find themselves in affluent communities and, traditionally, their motivations could be construed as selfish and myopic. Their thoughts about community work could have included:

  • This makes our school look good.
  • We don’t have time to get really involved, but we can help with donations.
  • Our learners will feel better about themselves for giving.
  • It’s our duty, as those with resources, to assist those without.

It can be uncomfortable to dig much deeper; to ask why we try to fill up the holes in our community with cash, because perhaps our altruism is tempered by disdain. It’s a bit of a schlep to be getting your hands dirty in a squatter camp when you could be rehearsing for a recital or whacking balls in the cricket nets. Far easier to pay someone else to do the grimy, be-niceto- poor-people stuff.

At St Alban’s, we learned that our boys were not moved or changed by bringing five bucks to Chapel and being told that it would go towards keeping someone warm. They weren’t learning. We couldn’t, with any honesty or integrity, say that it was contributing to their education. This is why we are exploring different (though not necessarily revolutionary) avenues of community connections – scenarios in which boys are expected to give of their time and their emotional and physical energy. We don’t just throw money at the problems; we throw boys.

Hopefully, we’re altering the mindset of the boys in our care. They’re not just doing their bit to help; they are actively crossing a relationship divide. They are forming connections. Connections bring unity. Unity builds a nation.

Role modelling moving from the fringe to the middle

Author Gary Hopkins explains that social integrity – the ability to recognise a need in the world and to have the desire to meet it – is lacking in many young people today because it is not being authentically modelled to them. They live on the fringes of their communities and are not part of churches or other structures where service to others is demonstrated consistently by significant elders. He reckons that the responsibility to teach social conscience now rests with schools.3

What we need to do is try to recognise what is true about our communities – the good and the bad – and then to have the courage to engage palpably with those realities.

Be active

Educator Brenda Dyck draws on psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s philosophy of moral development to talk about giving back. Kohlberg offers six stages of moral development available to human beings: (1) obedience and punishment; (2) individualism and reciprocity; (3) interpersonal conformity; (4) law and order; (5) social contract; and (6) universal ethical principles. According to Kohlberg:

  • Most adults never get past level three of the moral development stages; and an individual can only progress through those stages one stage at a time – they cannot ‘skip’ stages.
  • People will come to a comprehension of a moral rationale only one stage above their own.
  • Those who deal with children should present them with moral dilemmas for discussion, dilemmas that will help them to see the reasonableness of a ‘higher stage’ of morality.
  • Most moral development occurs through social interaction.
  • In order for children to reorganise their thinking, they must be active in the process, not just passive listeners. Just listening to adults promote moral judgements will not promote moral development.

Adds Dyck: It is too easy for adults to tell children what they should think. For educators on a tight teaching timeline, it’s difficult to take time to let students work out ethical and moral issues for themselves. But it’s sobering to confront the idea that all our telling doesn’t guarantee students will embrace our morals or automatically empathise with the social injustices in the world. If students’ moral thinking is reorganised best by being active in the process, then it is essential for teachers to create hands-on activities and thought-provoking discussions that immerse students in all sides of the issues.4

We need passionate engagement

Kohlberg’s and Dyck’s observations reinforce the idea that if we want children to learn and develop as a result of community connections – to become morally accountable citizens intent on advancing society – then they need to be the actual warm bodies on the job, so to speak. And it seems that if educators aren’t creating the opportunities for these community connections then, in South Africa at least, we are robbing our students of an opportunity, possibly unique to their generation, to bring about true transformation.

It involves the active, passionate and consistent engagement of people from ‘have’ and ‘have not’ walks of life, leading to a mutual changing of thought patterns and perspectives. Arrogance is tempered; possibilities are recognised. Partnership is where each comes away with the sense that they learned far more than they taught. Partnership is about educating the next generation to kick-start life-giving cycles of empowerment and hope.

Dalene Reyburn teaches English at St Alban’s College.


1. Hopkins, G. (2004) Is Community Service a Waste of Time? Available at:

2. Kipling, R. (1999) The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling. London: Wordsworth Poetry Library

3. Hopkins, G., op. cit

4. Dyck, B. (2005) Can We Teach Social Conscience? Available at:

Category: Spring 2011

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